“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t:” Madness as Duality and Loss of Self in the Plays of William Shakespeare
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This essay is an analysis on the way in which William Shakespeare interacts with madness, as it was understood in Elizabethan England, in a select few of his works. In briefly examining the history of Madness in the sixteenth century as it was born from the idea of the four humors and the black bile driven sickness “melancholie,” it becomes evident that the English in Shakespeare’s time would have understood Madness, among other ways, as an internal imbalance and irrationality which lead to dual nature and eventually total loss of self. With this in mind, the essay shifts to an examination of three well known plays, Richard III, King Lear, and Hamlet, and the practice of falsity and play acting that appears in all. In light of the lesser-known sixteenth century understanding of madness as an internally-driven dissolution of character, the essay rereads certain characters in each text who participate in such duality as sufferers of this type of insanity, or (in some cases) mimicks of such sufferers. In this examination it is revealed how Shakespeare used this insanity as a tool for characterization and plot development. Furhter, Shakespeare’s use of this form of madness shows clearly the way in which the typical Elizabethan Englishman would have understood and related to the illness. In all, Shakespeare’s inclusing of the emerging understanding of madness as duality shows not only his skill as a writer, but also the way in which he was in touch with both the society at the time and the human condition.